Henry Rollins Meets Pussy Riot

Henry Rollins Meets Pussy Riot

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]

The last few days have been somewhat blurred and quite good. I am in Antwerp, Belgium, by way of Los Angeles and Chicago. After nine hours on the ground, I am emerging from the coma of jet lag.

What brought me here? As much as anything else, a total lack of confidence. I don’t have any, never had. I say yes to work opportunities, do what I hope is too much preparation and then throw myself into it with cold-sweat desperation to not fail. I spend a lot of time feeling grim.

Several months ago, I was approached to write a screenplay for a film. I was given the plot line and asked to fill it in. Somehow, the project got funded and is very much under way. The director/creator asked me to come here and be one of the characters. I said yes. I better not complain about the quality of my character’s lines. Talk about chickens coming home to roost.

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To get here, I had to visit Illinois. A stress-inducing and great time I had.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Riot Fest and asked if I would moderate a panel with Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina from the Russian band Pussy Riot, who were incarcerated for almost two years for their action at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012. Beside them would be three guests, to be determined. My job would be to keep things moving. Not so hard to be on a panel, not all that easy to moderate one.

Of course I said yes. I have wanted to meet Masha and Nadya ever since I read about what happened. It was my hope that if they ever survived prison, they would go into the world and perform, speak or in some way communicate and connect with people, especially young ones. I thought they would have an incredible story to tell. The festival setting would be perfect.

As soon as I said yes, my stomach started turning. So much to do in preparation, lest I leave something or someone out of the mix. As soon as I got the panelists’ names — Greg Graffin of Bad Religion, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against, Marcelle Karp of Bust and Michael Petryshyn, who runs the festival — I started researching everyone, so as to combine their strengths and expertise and weave it into what Masha and Nadya would be talking about.

Panels make for a dynamic and constantly morphing environment. I think of moderating as simultaneously balancing, juggling and being an air traffic controller. Add in the fact that Masha and Nadya would have a translator onstage, it only gets trickier. I don’t know if I was the one for the job, but it was the job I had.
  I don’t know if you are familiar with Pussy Riot, what they do and the impact they have had, not only in Russia, but all over the world. If you want to learn more, the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a must-see.

In one part, a British journalist interviews Vladimir Putin about the band; Putin can barely say the band’s name, much less talk about them. They really got to him, which is in itself incredibly impressive and truly scary. He’s one of the last people in the world whose radar you want to be on. Yet there is Pussy Riot: feminist, punk-rock, LGBT rights warriors, occupying the crosshairs of a country where actions can have almost surreal consequences.

On a conference call a few days before the panel, I got to hear what was on the minds of everyone involved. I took notes. I made notes on the notes. Too many notes? Make note: You can never have too many notes.

The only people left to talk to were Nadya and Masha. I was able to sit down with them a couple of hours before stage time. They told me the things they wanted to talk about and I made note of that.

We all arrived at the site and had one last sit-down to go through things (I took more notes). Everyone was switched on and motivated. I went onstage and introduced everyone and they all walked on. At the sight of Nadya and Masha, the place erupted in applause.

We got into it right away. The panel could not have been more lively and thoughtful. It ran like it was scripted. Mike was excellent; Greg, Tim and Marcelle were so intelligent and spirited; Masha and Nadya, whose English has been getting better with all their traveling, were frequently able to engage without translation. One thing I had not counted on with the two of them was how funny they could be. They had everyone onstage and in the audience laughing when they talked about Putin.

One of the things I wanted to come back to as I sent topics into the conversation pit was that, while we don’t have a politician like Putin or a governmental system that really compares, you can’t just beat up on Russia without taking a look at America. A lack of transparency in media, a sometimes questionable path of justice, homophobia, misogyny, rampant inequality — Russia has all that, but so do we.

I think perhaps the best part of the panel was that we acknowledged the incredible power that punk rock still holds — that it is a very real thing, and that people talking about their native country can allow you to think of yours differently.

The weather was awful. Cold and raining. The audience stood through the whole thing. Excellent panel, amazing afternoon. Enough inspiration to last for years, and great to meet two women who are bringing change wherever they go. I wish you could have been there.

Follow us on Twitter @LAWeeklyMusic, Henry Rollins @henryrollins and like us at LAWeeklyMusic.

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